Jennifer Weiss enjoys talking about Harvard volleyball.
After all, she’s going into her 26th year at the Cambridge, Mass., Ivy League school.
But what makes her light up is talking about what her players do off the court. Take this summer, for example, as four seniors are preparing for the real world.
Christina Cornelius, next year’s captain, is at Facebook.
Anna Uhr is at Nike.
Jocelyn Meyer, preparing for medical school, is shadowing an orthopedic surgeon in Dayton, Ohio.
And Brooke Istvan is working for the Federal Reserve in Chicago.
“It’s exciting,” Weiss said. “It’s a good group.”
It’s also a group that would like to get the Crimson back on top of the Ivy after Harvard won the league title in 2014 and 2015.
But in 2016, the team fell to 9-14 overall, 7-7 in the league.
Last year, Harvard was 13-10 overall and at 8-6 in the conference, two wins off the pace as Princeton and Yale tied for the title.
“That senior class, we won the title and went to see Nebraska,” Weiss said with a smile, recalling going to Lincoln and the powerful Cornhuskers. “But they know what it takes to win the title. It’s hard. There’s a lot of parity in the league.
Back to those seniors.
Cornelius is a 6-foot-2 middle from Los Angeles, who led the team in kills with 242 (2.66/set), hit .289 and was third on the team in digs with 183 (2.01/set).
Uhr is a libero from Honolulu, who led the team in digs with 283 (3.18/set).
Meyer is a 6-1 middle/right side from Springboro, Ohio. She averaged .205 kills and led the team with 27 aces.
Istvan, from Hinsdale, Ill., a Chicago suburb, is a 5-8 setter hoping to get into the mix this season. She’s also a team captain.
Also returning is 6-3 junior outside Grace Roberts Burbank, from San Francisco, who had 212 kills (2.94/set), and junior Maclaine Fields, a 6-3 middle from Alamo, Calif., who had 195 kills (2.19/set) and led the team with 67 blocks, 14 solo.
Weiss will have quite a mix this season.
“I’m really excited about our incoming freshmen,” she said.
That’s a five-player class led by setter Bella Almanza, who Weiss said should see court from the get-go. If nothing else, she has big-time sports lineage. Her grandfather, Albert, played on the 1960 and 1964 Mexico Olympic basketball teams, her father played hoops at Houston Baptist and mother played at Loyola. And her brother plays basketball at Sam Houston State.
Recruiting in the Ivy League is different than other Division I conferences. The academic standards are higher than most and the league does not give athletic scholarships.
“It does make the pool small,” Weiss admits, “because they have to be academically qualified. And no one wants to set them up for failure. So we can’t just get the best volleyball players in there.”
Harvard, of course, has an international reputation as one of the top academic institutions in the world. And the school offers financial help for families in need.
“You want to recruit like everybody else. You want to get them young, see what they can do in the classroom and on the court,” said Weiss, whose husband, Jay, is the longtime Harvard wrestling coach.
“As our football coach always says, ‘Don’t ever leave a stone unturned.’ And don’t expect that they’re going to come. You’ve got to go out and find them. Sure, there’s a ton that write us and want to come here for the education, but we want to find the ones that have good character, are well-rounded, and have a little grit. We want them to be able to do a lot of things and be good at working with others, for sure.”
In 2018, the Crimson will be challenged from the start. Harvard’s preseason schedule includes Michigan, Michigan State, area foes Boston College and Fairfield.
“That should get us ready for the Ivys,” Weiss said. “Gotta play the best, right, and get ready.”
Last year, after they tied for the regular-season title, Princeton — which won the league in 2016, too — swept Yale in a one-match playoff. The Ivy also includes Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell and Penn.
Princeton lost in three to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This season the Ivy “should be great. It should be a lot of fun. There’s always a lot of parity in the league,” Weiss said. “You’ve got to get into the routine once you get into the Ivys and really dig in. It’s an every-day grind just like it is everywhere else.
“Their grind academically is second to none. Nobody else in the world is like the Ivy League. And you’ve got to manage that as a coach and be sure you can grind it out and win the Ivy League title.”